Tag Archives: art

Modernités plurielles de 1905 à 1970

I have neglected this site for some time now, in substantial part because of an impending move out of Edinburgh and to a village in the west of Scotland (in three weeks’ time – yikes!  It’s probably best not to think about it too much and to write a blog posting about an exhibition instead… oh, look at what I’ve managed to do here!).  There is much to say, however: I have two nearly completed (and long overdue) windfarm chapters to publish – which will now come out after the move, I suspect! – and there have been some interesting (to me…) developments and photographs that have emerged in recent times that need some considered attention.  But today I want to briefly discuss something that has caused me great excitement on an artistic and intellectual level.

Paris

We are just back from a few days in Paris – a long-planned trip that happened to come at a very good time in relation to the move, offering us refreshment and time to reflect.  I took a fair bit of reading with me, and we spent time in cafés and restaurants, in our apartment in the 19th arrondisement (via Airbnb for the first time, which worked well), and wandered through the city a bit.  We also went to two excellent exhibitions, the first of which is temporary and well-worth going to if you’re in or near Paris in the next months: a detailed examination of Erwin Blumenfeld’s work at the Jeu de Paume, the French national gallery devoted to mechanically- and electronically-reproduced imagery, especially photography, video, cinema etc.  I may come back to write about this at some point in the near future, if my head isn’t too full with thoughts about packing boxes and the like.  The second gallery visit we made was to the Centre Pompidou, and specifically to the fifth floor, entitled Modernités plurielles de 1905 à 1970, and I want to offer some brief reflections on that, related to my own field of history, historicisation and postcolonial theory (don’t be put off…!).  The Centre Pompidou is the world’s largest modern art collection, and even on the basis of this one brief visit, I feel the thinking underpinning the exhibits is way ahead of other large galleries that I have visited.

History and modernity

Seen at the airport, Paris

Seen at the airport, Paris

For some time now, more progressive academic historians have deconstructed the very idea of modernity.  To generalise somewhat, up until even just a decade or two ago, traditional Western historians tended towards a particular view of the world, that saw modernity as something that the ‘West’ (often undefined, but understood to be Europe, North America, Australasia, and so on, and perhaps, post-Cold War, the more ‘European’ of the former Soviet bloc countries) had ‘achieved’ and others were in the process of achieving.  However, this linear form of history bears no relation to the reality as understood by most of the world.  Modernity is not a fixed point, but something that is created continually – this might even be one of the few times I find myself agreeing with an institution of neoliberal finance… (this snapped on my mobile telephone at the airport on a moving walkway!).

The consequence of such an understanding is that it is not appropriate to speak about modernity in the singular – if many people in many contexts are creating modernity, then we need to think about multiple modernities.  This is something that is gradually making inroads into even the more conservative fields of historical study, such as mission history (the focus of much of my research); I hope I have managed to play at least a small part in rethinking that over the years, disrupting and questioning fixed historiographies and paradigms of modernity.  A key issue in such reassessments is the understanding that colonial history, traditionally portrayed as something that involved the bringing of modernity from the imperial centre (Britain, France etc.) to the colonial periphery (everywhere else!) actually involved a two-way traffic – colonial possessions transformed the imperial centres at least as much as they were transformed.  A significant branch of postcolonial theory is about uncovering precisely these transformations, and the idea of ‘global history’ is an integral part of this (see C.A. Bayly’s magisterial The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 or the CLIOH World project and (free downloadable!) books such as World and Global History – Research and Teaching that a friend of mine, Seija Jalagin, has been involved in editing).

However, I have not really encountered this kind of thinking in contemporary art exhibitions.  Artists are often shown as solitary creatives, and we often think of them or idealise them as such, even if we think we know better.  We marvel at the inventiveness of Pablo Picasso, the nuance in Henri Matisse’s work, the delicate interplay of light and colour that Vincent Van Gogh searched for, Wassily Kandinsky’s move to abstraction with painting becoming almost as a form of music – and so on.  Some exhibitions will show some of the influences upon these great men (more about men in a moment!), but these are slim and marginal.  For example, I recall visiting a gallery a few years ago (I think it was London’s Tate Modern) that pointed to some of the African influences on Picasso, highlighting masks and other items that Picasso clearly referenced in some of his work (art historians even talk about his ‘African period’).

Subverting the idea of the solitary artist

A PhD student that I have had the privilege of supervising in recent years, Rajalakshmi Nadadur Kannan, has recently completed and successfully defended her thesis, and her work has helped me to rethink copyright in quite radical ways (en passant, I note that this is one of the most rewarding aspects of PhD supervision – having your understanding of an issue radically subverted by a student’s work).

She wrote about Karnatic music (generally known as classical Indian music) and the problems with copyrighting it in the contemporary context.  Using Marx, postcolonial theory and understandings of authorship deriving from Benjamin and others, she shows why copyright is problematic in this context.  To simplify considerably (I hope she won’t mind this rather brutal summary!), there are two key problems with identifying ownership of this music: (a) it is understood as being divinely inspired and so how can something that originates with the divine, however that is understood, be copyrighted? and (b) the tunes are passed down orally from teacher to pupil, and in turn embellished and elaborated upon according to certain criteria, which makes identifying a single creator difficult.  Copyright as a system of ownership linked to a particular individualised understanding of capitalist modernity is difficult to implement in a context that does not subscribe to such principles of individualised modernity.

I would argue that it does not really matter whether we subscribe to the same ideas about divine inspiration of artistic work as Karnatic musicians (theoretically) do, but many of us would recognise that there is some form of internal and/or external inspiration underpinning creative work.  Furthermore, I think most also understand the idea of a wider tradition and community that impacts upon artistic endeavour and the creation of a unique artistic expression, giving such expression a context and a framing (though the arguments around these claims are not something I want to develop to any great extent here).

Modernités plurielles?

However, Western art exhibitions that I have visited have only ever tangentially recognised this.  There is the example of Picasso mentioned above, but the portrayal of influence tends to see the incorporation of ‘primitive’ colonial art into the ‘modern’ art of the European.  This is in part a question of the situatedness of the artist and a poor historicisation of their context: for instance, whilst Matisse introduced Picasso to African art, his first transformative encounter with such art was apparently in the context of an ethnographic museum, not an art gallery.

Now, however, we should be seeing and understanding these relationships quite differently, and this is something that the Centre Pompidou has managed to do, and as far as I can tell, do spectacularly well.  The gallery – a permanent albeit constantly changing gallery – presents itself under the title ‘Modernités plurielles de 1905 à 1970’ (Plural Modernities from 1905 to 1970), even in the title recognising that there are multiple forms of modernity being created in similar times across the globe, and the art on display reflects this.  Not only do we find French, American, Russian etc. art intermingled by theme, we are shown similar patterns from around the world.  From the very beginning of the gallery, global art is included, and whilst many of the traditional descriptions of movements remain (Expressionism, Totemism etc.) these are given a global context.  For example, Magic Realism is related to Latin American realist movements, whilst artists from the Middle East and North Africa who developed conceptual art in ways that reflected and expanded upon European conceptual art find their place alongside more well-known (in European circles) artists and their works.  A section on French architecture and the creation of colonial cities in North Africa demonstrated the ways in which Arab art influenced French architects, even though they thought they were simply building cities for Europeans in Algeria and other colonial possessions (this process is something that I have written about at length in other contexts).  Above all, the global context is seen not as a colonial background for the development of European art, but rather, the global exchanges and connections that many artists were a part of are highlighted in constructive and stimulating forms, creating a fascinating discourse between artistic purity and hybridity.  It is worth noting that in many contexts, the global artists’ names are not known and appear simply as ‘anonymous’ – a stark and painful reminder of the European colonial legacy that dehumanised huge parts of the world in the drive to economic and political domination.

“The techniques of European art can be as useful to us in painting as in sculpture or architecture, provided we avoid the danger of stripping ourselves of our own art and personality.” (Leandro M’Bomio, Paris, a quotation on one of the gallery walls)

Another effect of the globalised understanding of art in the Centre Pompidou is the diminution of the traditional emphasis on ‘great men’ of art.  They are not displaced, but the inclusion of women from Europe and from around the globe sets them into a wider context.  Not only do we find, for example, Sonia Delauney (and it has seemed to me that she is portrayed mostly in relation to her husband, rather than recognised as a great artist in her own right) and Frida Kahlo, but also many other global women, including the wonderful Behjat Sadr (a personal favourite).  The global vision on offer here brings not only the whole world to an understanding of art, but that whole world also goes some considerable way to restoring the place of women in art history (nonetheless, only about 50 of the 400 artists on display are women – though a number of the ‘anonymous’ artworks may also be by women, of course).

Some closing thoughts

So is this a postcolonial exhibition?  I think it could certainly be seen in that way.  It is truly liberating to see an exhibition that reflects a global perspective on art, that sees and understands movements and connections in all kinds of interesting ways, and that thereby offers a far more holistic understanding of art than we might already know.  I was not completely convinced by all the connections being made, but I am in no way qualified to judge art history in this kind of global way (in fact, I suspect relatively few people really are, but I’m not even qualified to appreciate Western art history fully!).

The fact that the Pompidou has attempted something so radically different in the context of a permanent exhibition is noteworthy and highly stimulating.  Doing so draws attention to the ways in which global traditions have emerged, and privileges understandings of art that include artists that are usually marginalised – women, and men and women from the global context.  We may not agree with the exact portrayal on offer, but as the curators themselves say, the exhibits are constantly changing, suggesting that they are themselves not completely satisfied with the portrayal on offer, constantly seeking to highlight and emphasise different aspects of the global narrative of modernity in art.  As Nadadur Kannan does in her thesis on Karnatic music, offering this kind of complex narrative of art history subverts the role of the ‘lone artist’ and offers a rich understanding of the significance of relationships and dependencies, whilst allowing for individual creativity – however we understand that – its rightful place in the artistic process.

– – – – – – – –

It is worth reading the Centre Pompidou’s own brief description of the gallery, available here (click the top right language options to see it in English).  Alain Seban and Catherine Grenier offer particularly interesting and helpful comments, I think.  The press kit (Fr/En) for the exhibition (a 35 page PDF) offers a more detailed introduction to the exhibition.

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Syd Krochmalny and Simon Yuill: visual cultures in Argentina and Scotland

On Thursday I attended an event organised by my colleagues, Sarah Wilson and Scott Hames. Syd Krochmalny and Simon Yuill addressed the topic of visual cultures in Scotland and Argentina.

Sarah Wilson introducing the seminar, and Syd Krochmalny

Sarah Wilson introducing the seminar, and Syd Krochmalny

Syd is a sociologist and artist based in Argentina; he mostly works on video installations addressing social issues. In Argentina it is very unusual to work in both art and sociology. Simon Yuill is an artist and writer based in Scotland, who has been heavily involved in The Strickland Distribution and Variant magazine. I thought it might be of interest to publish my notes on their two presentations – I make no guarantees regarding absolute accuracy, but I hope to have recorded some key elements of their talks.

Argentina

Syd gave a presentation entitled The Crisis of Success: Visual Arts in Argentina 2001-2011, describing a move from an art utopia to a market utopia. There are three distinct periods in a chronological account of this period: 1) a social crisis related to the financial crisis of 1997-2003, that came to a head in 2001; 2) an expansion of the art world from 2003-2007, in part as economic recovery happened; 3) from 2005, however, there was a severe fragmentation of the art world. Although the current situation is often seen as beginning with the 2001 economic crisis, the root of this crisis in turn lies in the implementation of neoliberal policies from 1975 onwards that led to the total collapse of the economy in 2001.

Social relationships during the 2001 crisis became critically important. Different forms of art appeared; so, for example, street art that critiqued the social order played a key role in helping a better understanding of what was happening in the country. This was an artist-led movement, and the artists – through mutual recognition and cooperation – were the ones who legitimated their work, indeed, the creativity of their work in itself legitimated what they were doing. This meant there was no need, no call for, no desire for, external and/or institutional legitimation. This is not to say that there were no problems in this period (for example, there were many long debates about the distinction between art and politics, between creativity and social action), but it was a tremendously creative time for a wide range of artists who produced all kinds of interesting visual work that helped to change the way people understood their situation.

Syd Krochmalny (with Sarah Wilson)

Syd Krochmalny (with Sarah Wilson)

As the economy improved (2003-2007), a more formal art market and parallel institutions began to develop. These appeared to increase artists’ opportunities to create. Galleries rapidly made international connections to the global art world and consequently began to direct work to make it ‘fit’ into what was perceived to be an international artistic community, culminating in a 2011 pavilion being bought by the Argentinian government at the Viennese Biennale. However, as artists began to participate in the global art market, it was noticeable that they began to fall into line with the market-led art institutions. Disagreements emerged over how to react to the marketisation: is this art or political action? is it ‘inside’ or ‘outside’? is the creator an artist or a social agent? what has primacy: a love of art or professionalisation? are people (still) working for themselves? Many artists felt themselves to be caught up in a series of contradictions, and struggled to reconcile these divergent positions.

These changes in the Argentinian art world, brought about directly by the commodification of an artistic practice – street art – that had emerged in a context of social action, did not just impact upon the artists of the time, but also impacted upon the new generation of artists. This new generation, however, do not feel the same contradictions about their work as their elders. In part this comes because their work integrates social and political issues from the beginning: in their understanding, activism itself can be a commodity, with artists working with disadvantaged groups in favelas (urban shanty towns), for example. Furthermore, many of the younger artists come from upper and upper-middle class backgrounds whose parents already have some kind of established connection to the art world, perhaps as gallery owners, art editors etc. This essentially makes this younger group of artists an ‘aristocracy’ utilising privileged family connections to further their work. A lack of social movement is the result, heralding a less equal society. Syd termed this ‘social closure’, pointing to the success of the art world in the post-economic crisis period: “The simultaneous qualitative and quantitive growth of institutions, of the market and in the number of artists has produced a ‘social closure'” – of course, this also mirrors wider stratification of society.

Therefore, although there might appear to be a vibrant new art scene that has emerged in recent years, Argentinian art, Syd argued, is actually facing a ‘crisis of success’ as a result of the commodification of what had previously been a means of critiquing neoliberalism. The problem now, he argued, is that neoliberalism appears in many instances to have taken over the critical nature of art, and thereby neutered the critical edge.

Scotland

Simon noted that Scotland has not, of course, had to cope with the same kinds of crises as Argentina. But other crises in the art world have emerged, also centred around neoliberal marketisation. For example, the very idea of there being ‘creative industries‘ is inherently problematic as a means of valorising artists’ work. There is a contradiction in this statement: it appears to be something outside the ‘art world’, but is valorised within it. This leads to ‘organisation isomorphism’, a term that originated with analyses of the co-operative movement. It describes the ways in which the egalitarian and horizontal nature of co-ops began to change to meet the needs of external actors, resulting in hierarchies and more vertical structures (chief executives, spokespeople etc.). Regardless of how an organisation conceives of itself, it is forced to change in order to interact with external agencies. In the art world, this is especially manifested in artist-led groups’ relationships to funders, and there is clear evidence that artist-led groups begin to mirror the structures desired by funders. These market-driven imperatives also then impact upon the priorities of the groups concerned and even the areas deemed appropriate to work in. Jennifer Wolch’s work on ‘the shadow state’ discusses precisely this issue: she shows how governments co-opt critical and liberatory movements, thereby maintaining control over them.

Simon Yuill

Simon Yuill

Simon pointed to two key ways, amongst others, in which this manifested itself:

  • there is a general issue about the access to resources: artist-led groups need funding, and they often need space in which to work.
  • there are also constraints imposed upon artistic expression through the market or the state. Such constraints are often structural (how to organise in order to suit funders, for example, becoming charitable bodies etc.) or situational (relating to opportunities and threats) or operational (when regulatory norms determine a group’s behaviour).

Elaborating on these a little more, Simon pointed to some examples:

  • artist-led groups might, for instance, want to make use of collective spaces, but the allocation or continued use of these can be problematic. Long-standing arrangements that might exist (use of unwanted buildings for nominal rents etc.) are subject to sudden and unpredictable change. In Glasgow the city council has a long history of offering artist-led groups cheap rent for buildings they did not use but wanted to keep. However, in 2010 the council created a private property management company and many of these buildings were transferred to it. Two key things have now changed: high rents are being threatened (from a ‘peppercorn’ £1 to a ‘market-rate’ of £700 in one example that Simon gave), and new leases have been issued that include liability for maintaining the buildings, meaning much of the risk in using the buildings is being transferred to the artists. Evictions have become a real possibility.
  • the (former) Scottish Arts Council created a funding scheme to enable artists to be given opportunities to sell art commercially (using galleries and so on). This does not account for artists who may want or need to create art that is not for selling but that might have a different rationale behind it. The marketisation and commodification of art is a long way from the original raison d’être of some of these artist-led groups.
  • a key threat to artist-led groups is the constant worry about the possibility of funding that has been granted then being withdrawn (Simon’s Variant magazine is an example of this). Creative Scotland (the successor to the Arts Council), has been heavily criticised for cancelling a flexible funding scheme that enabled longer-term planning, as it could be used to cover a groups’ core costs. Now Creative Scotland focus only on project funding – and yet core costs still exist, of course. Furthermore, as this is all project-led, the funding is more easily withdrawn. Perhaps most seriously, project-led funding means that every single project needs to be vetted by Creative Scotland, resulting in hierarchical, top-down directing of what artists are doing.

In the wider context there is a suggestion that all of these funding and creative elements are part of an ‘art world ecology’. This kind of language suggests complex, self-sustaining, self-regulating structures – but it fails to recognise that ecology tends towards collapse as much as towards sustenance. This becomes visible in the hierarchy of art schools, through to artist-collectives, small galleries, and then larger (even national) galleries. The ‘industry’ of art managers, curators, funders and so on all play a part in the isomorphism of artistic creation.

In Scotland we have seen the emergence of a reactionary discourse that claims to protect, but actually reins in, artistic practice. The result is that artist-run practice can be seen as a kind of medieval guild system that includes a revival of a bourgeois structure, including hierarchisation and the construction of privileged networks. An increasing emphasis on philanthropy is a marker of this phenomenon. Subversion is claimed as if art is inherently subversive, without actually showing or declaring how this might be the case. The result is the establishment of an order, a bourgeoisie.

Of course, an artist-run space is not inherently subversive. It is more complex than that: subversion needs to be regained, not by invoking creativity per se, but by placing the artist as a worker, albeit a precarious worker (see the recent discussion around the widespread emergence of a ‘precariat’). In so far as possible, removing the effects of organisational isomorphism has the potential to enable the re-emergence of a more subversive art.

Concluding comments

In a week when the Tory Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Maria Miller, displayed breathtaking levels of ignorance and philistinism in discussing the place of the arts in society (see Tiffany Jenkins’ comment from a Scottish perspective on Miller’s speech), the presentations by Syd Krochmalny and Simon Yuill offered clear analyses of the malign influence of neoliberalism on artistic cultures. The discussion that ensued picked up a number of these themes, but I think it perhaps best to end with a memorable line from Syd that seemed to me to encompass a key point of what both he and Simon were describing:

“Art is the possibility to create, all the time, the definition of art.”

Rob Hudson’s reflections on landscapes and the idea of the muse

To my immense frustration, I’ve had a frantically busy work time recently, and have neglected not only this blog, but also my cameras: I’ve simply not had time to get out and make any photographs at all recently.  I hope this will change in the near future.

However, I do want to point to an article, written by Rob Hudson, that picks up on landscape-related themes on the idea of a muse.  I mentioned Rob in my recent blog posting on this topic, and he also commented on it.  In fact, he even wrote this latest article for me:

Ok, maybe it was not just for me, but it certainly speaks to me in terms of the subject matter, and I highly recommend it.

There are, I think, questions that arise from Rob’s article around the intellectual as well as the emotional response to landscape (or indeed, any subject matter), but I think I need to formulate that more coherently in a response on the On Landscape website – I’ll do that sometime soon.

Note that to read Rob’s article you will need a free subscription to the magazine, but you may also want to pay for more of it… I do, and it is worth it!

Something a little different

On a recent outing to Helmsdale, I made this:

River Helmsdale: road and river

River Helmsdale: road and river

Made with a Lensbaby selective focus lens, it is one of the few times I’ve really managed to use the lens in a way that resulted in a meaningful image, rather than just something that used the Lensbaby for the sake of using it.  Photographing flowers with it is just incredibly boring; I do have some interesting portrait ideas I want to use it for, but haven’t quite organised the model for this yet.

I stood on the opposite bank looking across the river for some time.  I felt the road bridge in the top right appeared to be more of a gaping mouth into complete darkness, and the stream that came down into the main river was somehow escaping from it.  I played about with a 50mm f1.4 lens, but when I looked through the viewfinder, I didn’t feel it really communicated sufficient menace (or rather, I couldn’t visualise what post-processing I would need to do to enable that to happen).  The Lensbaby – that I almost didn’t bother taking with me on that day –  was just right.  All I’ve done to the image in post-processing is cropped it to 5×7, adjusted the levels/curves a bit, and added a vignette.

There is not much here that could be regarded as representative photography, which is just what I wanted.

Nakedness, breasts, ‘art nudes’, sex and photography

I want to return to some issues relating to responsibility in portraiture that I have touched on briefly before (for example, here and here). In particular, I want to offer some reflections on the photographic portrayal of nudity, or semi-nudity. This posting is to be read as an expression of impatience with what I see as the self-deceit and hypocrisy of many practitioners of what is often called ‘art nude’ photography. I’ll steer clear of explicit discussions of critical theory… but it’s there if you’re looking for it! 🙂

Nakedness

An intimate portrait

An intimate portrait

Let me ask to begin with: what do these two images bring to mind?

smiling

smiling

The first is a photograph I am extremely attached to, for reasons that are very personal: it does what I want it to do, and the model is a good friend who is largely responsible for making me realise that I enjoy creating portraits, and that these can even be rather good. I think of her as my portrait muse (that’s a topic for another day!). It’s not a perfect image by any means, as I have acknowledged in my description, but it is special to me. The second image is part of a slightly mad photoshoot: as I described here, this woman is a professional model who wanted a ‘different’ kind of snow shoot for her modelling portfolio, and all the images from that day are… well, ‘different’ snow images.

Neither, of course, are completely ‘normal’ photographs: both models are revealing more of their naked skin than they might normally do in these settings. The lilac dress doesn’t fall away quite as much in other photographs from this shoot that I’ve published, and the other snow images include a couple more bikini shots, but are mostly of the model wearing dresses (albeit light summer dresses in order to contrast with the snow).  However, it would be very naive to suggest that these images do not also involve a sexual element – especially because of the poses and the fact that both women are revealing more of their breasts than we might expect – and in both cases that’s part of the intention behind the images.

Breasts

Increasingly, it seems to me, women’s breasts are seen solely as sexual symbols (and capitalism exploits this to great effect – think back to the Wonderbra advertisements with Eva Herzigova, and many similar advertising campaigns). This frequently goes to extreme lengths: breasts are abstracted from the rest of the body to the point where they are all that matters (and the taste/level of violence employed in the endless terms used to describe breasts goes rapidly downhill from the almost-endearing language of ‘boobs’).  They become fetishised objects in and of themselves: so-called ‘lad’s magazines’ (like Zoo and Nuts) feature endless photographs of naked breasts, often without the women’s faces or the rest of their bodies (interestingly, these magazines are regularly left on the train I take to and from work, so their viewers – I really cannot bring myself to call them readers – presumably don’t want to be seen with their purchases when they reach their destination).  Breasts, big breasts, are what men want – apparently – and photographs of such breasts are meant to link directly to thoughts of sex (though in general I suspect they just lead to lonely acts of masturbation). The women the breasts belong to are often only valued in terms of their (abstracted) breasts. This is simply pornography – depictions designed to arouse and elicit a sexualised response. Although I’m happy to debate the artistic merits of almost any human creation until the wee small hours, I do not see such depictions as art in any helpful or meaningful sense.

Not what I was hoping for...

Not what I was hoping for...

However, abstraction doesn’t need to be as dramatically obvious or deliberate as the pornography I’ve just mentioned. Although the first image at the beginning of this post reveals more of the model’s breasts than might be expected, I think it does work, whereas this second image of her does not (which is why I have not published it before). She wanted to create an image that communicated feelings of loss and abandonment: she described it in terms of being deserted at a party. The high heels she is holding, the partially-visible but unopened bottle of champagne, the downcast look – all were meant to be a part of this, along with appropriate post-processing (that I have not carried out). But her dress did not co-operate: it fell away from her breasts too easily, and her pose, leaning to her right, means the viewer’s attention is immediately drawn to what happens to be at the very centre of the image: her almost-completely naked breast that her left arm, reaching across her lap to hold her shoes, is inadvertently pushing out of the dress and towards the camera.  With the almost-naked breast the (unintended) central feature of the image, all the other elements become secondary, and so the image as a whole just doesn’t work for either of us. It’s not that the model is ‘too naked’ or ‘too sexy’, it’s that the way the nakedness is created defeats the original intention of the image, creating an abstraction of her breast that then detracts from all the other elements of the photograph. I don’t want to create abstractions of breasts like that: after several attempts, we knew at the time of shooting that this idea would require her to be wearing a different dress. Neither of us wanted to create an image designed solely to offer titillation.

‘Art nudes’

Of course, there are whole genres of photography that deliberately reveal much more naked skin. The term ‘art nude’ is often used in this context. I am deeply sceptical of much of this genre. It is surely no coincidence that an awful lot of ‘art nude’ photography involves older men photographing pretty young women, and no matter how technically accomplished the photography is, much of what pretends to be ‘art nude’ is simply stylish pornography: the focus on particular body parts seems designed to titillate more than anything else. This is very noticeable on photo-sharing sites, where comments regularly descend into raucous objectification of the models’ bodies or parts of their bodies. Such images are everywhere: a cursory look at the constantly-updated ‘popular’ collection of images on 500px.com will easily demonstrate this (I am a member of this photo-sharing site): it is a rare day indeed when the first page or two of ‘popular’ images do not include breasts, often cropped in such a way as to exclude the model’s face. This phenomenon is also observable in some ‘analogue process’ contexts: images of naked women made using Victorian wet-plate methods can be just as abstracting as ones made using a top-of-the-range digital Nikon (as an aside, it seems to me as an outsider to this field that much of this ‘vintage photography’ is really rather tedious, consisting of repetitive motifs displaying little artistic imagination or compositional ability, and though there is a great delight in the method, the process of achieving an image in and of itself does not give the end result artistic merit; nudes photographed with antique cameras still need to communicate more than just the abstraction of a breast etc.). I don’t see any point in linking to more examples, but I would nonetheless maintain that much ‘art nude’ photography is simply stylish (stylised?) pornography – a form of imagery whose primary function for the photographer or the viewer is to elicit a sexualised response.

Of course, there are notable exceptions. In some ways, photographs of men can subvert such understandings of the ‘art nude’: these (from Redbubble, another photo-sharing site I use) play too much into the über-masculine virile alpha-male understanding of masculinity for my liking (though note that when shown, the penis is flaccid rather than erect). However, the photographer also includes nude images of herself in her portfolio, and so I presume these photographs do speak to her, at least (interestingly, she doesn’t include identifiable faces in these images, but her photographs don’t focus simply on breasts or genitalia). More interesting to me are attempts to subvert classical images of masculinity, as Alex Boyd has tried to do in his fourth image here, for example (I have tried similar images, also using myself as a model, but I wasn’t happy with them; perhaps I should revisit this theme). Another form of subversion is the inclusion of scars and visible disability: it seems to me that this photographer’s work (also on Redbubble) is pushing at the boundaries of art nude, but it intrigues me nonetheless – a woman, over 40, using herself as a model, including scars from her breast cancer surgery in her image-making. Of course she is still beautiful with the scars, but this kind of imagery confounds the heteronormative stereotypes of beauty and the traditional ‘art nude’ style of photography that I have described above.

Sex

Imperfect mirrors

Imperfect mirrors

I am not, of course, saying that images should never elicit a sexual response. It is when that is all they do that I think they descend into simply being pornography. What I want is for an image that elicits a sexual response to also do more than that. This is not necessarily difficult. For example, this image, that I created for a book cover about worship in churches, uses a corset to communicate something radically different to the clerical shirt that is depicted in the mirror. The corset communicates something about sex and intimacy and perhaps does so even more obviously from the back than it would do if we could see the model’s breasts and the cleavage created by the corset: her naked back and the elaborate ribbons are – I think – suggestive enough of an alternative milieu to the church’s clerical clothing (it has even been suggested that she looks like a ‘working girl’ – perhaps the term ‘sex worker’ was too much for that commentator – I was present when the model was told this, and she thought it was hilarious!). Here, a suggestion of sex is created through a combination of partial nakedness, and the contrast between the corset and the stuffiness of the church ‘uniform’.

If you’ve managed to read this far, you’re perhaps wondering if I have some kind of problem with nudity and sex.  I don’t think I do, or at least, no more so than most. I see myself as having very broad and liberal understandings on these questions: nudity can be completely wonderful and liberating on many levels, as a physical, emotional and even intellectual expression of self. Sex can be exhilarating, intimate, varied, generous and completely appropriate in a multiplicity of contexts, and the source of great pleasure to those involved. So I am not criticising nudity and sex in photography as such, rather the frequent objectification of a stereotyped image of women’s bodies.

Such objectification is almost always also an abuse of power: abstraction of particular body parts such as breasts or genitalia denies the model’s personhood, their identity as a whole human being. If feminism has taught us anything, it is that power distorts relationships, and performing gender (to use Judith Butler’s language) with a clothed older man wielding a camera in front of a naked younger woman almost invariably leads to asymmetrical power relationships, especially when the focus is simply on certain body parts rather than the individual as a whole. I think photographers and viewers – especially men! – who think otherwise need to reassess their understandings of relationships, and think long and hard about the reasons for wanting to make or view such images.

Photography

Because of the pornographic nature of much of what is supposedly ‘art nude’, the exceptions can be dramatic when we encounter them: there are the examples I have given above, but I have also written before about the brilliant image by Richard Avedon of Nastassja Kinski naked with a serpent: ‘Kinski communicates phenomenal serenity, control, and even power in this photograph, despite being completely naked…’. A friend of mine is in the process of making a series of female and male nude photographs that primarily communicate mystery and longing: very human emotions.  And this is what photography should be about: I want it to elicit some kind of emotional response – and an erection doesn’t count as an emotional response! If a photograph only elicits titillation for either the photographer or the viewer, then we should call it what it is – pornography and not ‘art nude’. If it does more than this, then we can see it as moving into the realm of art.

A little bit of honesty here is all that’s needed.

Warm thanks to Alex Boyd, who read an early version of this text and offered feedback; I am, of course, entirely responsible for the end result.
As always, I welcome comments, but please do not include links to supposedly ‘good’ ‘art nude’ sites – I will not approve them.  Thank you.

Why workshop?

A while ago I mentioned on Twitter that I had booked myself a place on a photography workshop. Someone commented on this in what felt like a throw-away remark, saying they had never seen the point of going on workshops. So I – in 140 characters! – sought to explain why this was important to me. Now that I’m just back from the workshop I booked on at the time, I thought I’d try and say more about it, and include some images from the time away (these are just the digital ones – I have yet to take the film rolls to be developed).

Achnahaird Bay

Achnahaird Bay

Firstly, it’s worth noting that I have no formal artistic training (unlike my correspondent, who has, I think, a degree in art/photography), and so for me, I hope that a workshop can serve partly to teach me something. Secondly, having a pretty intense full-time job means that if I get the time to go and photograph for a few days and do nothing but think about photography, that is really fantastic!  The week was a proper holiday, and I didn’t read a single academic text whilst away (even though I did have a book with me… I rarely travel without one!).

Thirdly, and most importantly for me, engaging with a photographer leading a workshop is about having someone critique what I do and help me move forward in my thinking and my photography.

Loch Bad a' Ghaill

Loch Bad a' Ghaill

My week away was with Bruce Percy, who has been running workshops for several years now.  Exactly two years before going on this Assynt workshop, I went (with my neighbour, Mabel Forsyth) to Torridon on one of his weekend workshops.  That was a great experience, as I wrote about here at the time.  So I was confident the week in Assynt would be a good week.

There are some people who seem to be workshop-regulars, going from one to the next all the time. I am not like that: I have attended a couple of other day-workshops in recent years, but have not been on residential workshops other than the one in Torridon and this one in Assynt.  So if you’re wanting me to offer comparisons, I can’t do so (though I have now heard quite a few horror stories of other workshops, some by really famous photographers… and no, I won’t say more on this).  My main purpose in going to Assynt with Bruce was that I wanted to rediscover something about my own reasoning and motivation for making photographs – especially landscapes – that I had found increasingly difficult to identify in recent times.  I felt I knew enough theory in terms of operating my cameras (though of course, Bruce was able to help me improve in certain areas, such as my exposures and hyperfocal focusing). But I felt I needed input on more important things, especially aspects of composition and how and why I frame the way I do or give more attention to certain things in a scene, and what all that says about my own ‘visioning process’ (sorry, I think that is a rather horrible phrase, but I can’t think of a more suitable one; pre-visualisation covers some of it, but is not the same thing).

Glencanisp Lodge, with view to Suilven

Glencanisp Lodge, with view to Suilven

Of course, this is not something that I discussed in any detail with Bruce before or during the workshop, because I knew from previous experience that this might come anyway – and it did.  One of the two key things for me in thinking about a workshop is that I have to like the photographs that the workshop leader makes, and I really love Bruce’s work – it offers depth and challenge, simplicity and elegance, in both his landscapes and portraits. Of course, I have no desire to create images that are like Bruce’s, even if I could do so, since they represent his vision and not mine; however, I feel I can relate to his vision. I have come to realise that the other key thing for me is that I have to feel I can connect to the leader, and that he or she can connect to me.  Of course, I’m privileged in that I was able to go on the Torridon workshop with Bruce and I therefore knew him a little already; and we’ve also become friends over the last couple of years – that is not something that is necessarily open to people who don’t live in the next neighbourhood to a workshop leader!  But it is possible to at least gain some impression of the person from their images and their writings (such as their blog) and this offers good clues.  And, of course, you can trust my recommendation that Bruce is a great workshop leader! 🙂

So, is it possible to sum up what it was that I gained from Bruce’s input? There are a number of things that come to mind, but the main one for me can be outlined in the following terms.  At the beginning of the week, he noted that he sometimes found it difficult to understand exactly what I was seeing and why I had gone for a certain composition (I did say this was perhaps because the images were no good, but Bruce disagreed!).  A day or two later he began to suggest that my visualising of scenes was perhaps too selective – I tended to visualise one or two really significant elements in a potential image, but I did not always frame these in a way that meant they were as apparent as I wanted them to be, whether this be unusual shapes, repeated lines, patterns on hills, the interplay between different elements in a scene, and so on. This is not simply about excluding extraneous elements – even if I intended to crop the image from whatever I saw in the viewfinder – although this is also a factor (see the tree image I discussed here recently and the grass in the bottom right of the image: 1, 2). Rather, for me, it is about expanding the view of the scene as a whole, about being able to encompass the elements that form the shapes, colours and tones in a way that enables a more holistic image to emerge.  That is what I want to achieve, and I know that I do that, but not always as consistently as I would like.

At Achnahaird Bay, looking south

At Achnahaird Bay, looking south

Of course, this is just me.  Other participants will hopefully have found something in Bruce’s critiques (there were 2-3 hours of image critiques on every day but one; other participants also commented on images) that helped them with whatever they thought they needed – or perhaps that they didn’t know they needed.

A month or two ago I removed all the landscape galleries from this site.  There really was a lot of rubbish there, in amidst some images that I liked.  Before going to Assynt I had begun the process of recreating the galleries and they are gradually going to reappear, but this time with far fewer, more carefully selected images.  In general, I make photographs for myself and not for others: being clearer about what I’m doing is therefore essential, and I feel the week away with Bruce has enabled me to see much more clearly exactly what kind of images I want to create, and given me more tools to enable me to go about doing that.  Those are the images I want to show here.

In essence, I feel I am approaching my photography with new confidence, a clearer sense of why I’m doing it, and how to go about achieving what I want. So in answer to my correspondent: that’s why I wanted to go on this workshop! 🙂

Friedensreich Hundertwasser and creative processes

I am currently in Kiel in northern Germany, and yesterday I went to the Hundertwasser exhibition in the Ostseehalle (that’s what everyone still calls it, despite the sponsoring bank insisting on naming it after itself…!). It was fantastic – do go if you’re anywhere near it!

Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000) came across as somewhat eccentric but fantastically creative, and applied his art to the ‘real world’, designing stamps, number plates, humus toilets, buildings/windows and much more, as well as creating more abstract imagery. The exhibition was extremely engaging, and I want to point to two significant thoughts that emerged for me.

A relative of mine had a large mounted reproduction print by Hundertwasser, L’expulsion, on her living room wall, and left it to me when she died… so it’s now hanging on my living room wall (sadly, it’s not a “real” Hundertwasser…!). I have always loved this image, though the colours on my print are different: they are richer, more saturated, than the image I’ve linked to and that was in the exhibition. In fact, many of his images were created in different colour palettes, though it is not clear to me what prompted him to choose the varying colour schemes. This is interesting to me: he seems to have seen various final possibilities for his images, none completely definitive, though all existing within certain fixed parameters. So often I try to get to one final image, but perhaps I should be more open to the multiplicity of possibilities that each image is offering me.

Secondly, it seemed to me that Hundertwasser had a perfect understanding of the theory and practice of pre-visualisation (what Steve Coleman memorably describes as taking a photograph you cannot see; I’ve also found Bruce Percy’s books to be most helpful on this topic) – he knew just what he was aiming for, and created images or objects that corresponded to an image he already understood and had discerned in some form. I don’t know that this was necessarily in the sense that the completed artwork was in some way visible to him in his imagination, but certain principles or guidelines – such as his understanding of the importance of spirals and his antipathy to straight lines – seem to have helped him to understand what he was working towards and what he wanted to reach with his art. In the same way, I think we as photographers need to know what we’re aiming for and what is guiding our creation of images, as this will help us in knowing what it is we are trying to achieve.

I think it is great to pick up on these questions in other art forms. I’m in the process of creating new image galleries to go online here sometime soon, and it’s helpful to be reminded of some of these themes as I try to think about the narrative underpinning images and image collections, however much of a novice I might be in this area.